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Three Mini-x-factors For The 2021-2022 Season
They might not deserve the upper-case X-Factor label, but their success could be the key to a deep playoff run
There are a lot of teams this year with playoff aspirations, whether real or imaginary (cough, Kings, cough). Below I’ve highlighted a few players that have a chance to become important contributors to playoff teams. Maybe they aren’t necessarily traditional needle-movers, but the ability of these guys to rise to the occasion could be the difference between a disappointing early exit and a sustained playoff run. (All stats via nba.com/stats and basketball-reference.com.)
1) Josh Richardson, Boston Celtics
People love to talk about Richardson’s shooting as if it fell off a cliff after he left Miami, but he was never the deadeye off-the-dribble shooter that people wanted him to be (35.8% for his career). His niche has always been as a long perimeter defender with enough shooting and playmaking chops (4.1 assists to 1.5 turnovers in 2018-2019) to keep defenses honest, but last year the real sticking point was his defense falling off. He was a weird fit last year for a Dallas team that put Dorian Finney-Smith on the opponent’s best perimeter player and didn’t utilize Richardson much as a secondary playmaker.
It seemed as though Richardson’s offensive struggles affected his defensive effort, even resulting in his benching towards the end of the season. In the ‘yoffs, he had a catastrophic defensive rating of 123.8 (in less than 100 minutes – a playoff team can’t wait to see if this is a small sample mirage or not). This is almost 6 points per 100 possessions worse than the Sacramento Kings’ historically bad 118.0 defensive rating in the regular season – yikes!
On offense, when comparing 2020-2021 Richardson numbers to 2018-2019 (his last year with the Miami Heat, when he was at his statistical best), we see a player who’s driving and passing way less often despite playing only slightly fewer minutes:
Boston’s team structure could be better suited to Richardson’s talents. Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and even Jayson Tatum grade out as better perimeter defenders, but the lack of a ball-dominant star like Luka Doncic could help Richardson utilize his playmaking a little more in a minor role. Instead of being reduced to essentially a spot-up shooter like he was in Dallas or a point guard-lite role like early on in Philly, he’ll be able to embrace his jack-of-all-trades skill set.
Boston had a strange year last year, battling COVID disruptions and a general sense that the players and coaches weren’t having fun after a successful run of making three Eastern Conference Finals in four years. They ranked 28th in the league in potential assists per game. Something in that team needed to change and loosen up the offense a little.
I’m not sure Richardson’s somewhat mechanical offensive skills are enough to get the gears unclogged. But if he’s able to provide some more playmaking verve, it could be a big boost to a surprisingly thin Boston squad that lurks as a dark horse in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff race. And if he isn’t? His recently extended $11.6 mil contract (a bit more next year) is the perfect size to trade for a bigger name.
2) Grayson Allen, Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks won a championship, so maybe it’s a little strange to pick a new bench player as an x-factor, but the East got significantly better over the offseason. The Bucks need more rotation-quality players for the grind of the regular season as well as to hit wide-open threes in the playoffs, something almost nobody on their team could do during last season’s run:
Connaughton was solid on medium volume, Forbes played 22 minutes total in the Finals, and everyone else was below-average to bad to terrible.
Enter Grayson Allen. Yes, his face incites an uncontrollable urge to throw hands in all who gaze upon it, but he’s quietly grown into an effective NBA player. He earned 25 MPG last season on a Mariana Trench-deep Grizzlies team, has shot 40% from 3 over his previous two seasons, and has become a credible wing defender. Allen’s assist rate has increased and his turnover rate has decreased each of his three years in the league, showcasing improved secondary playmaking abilities.
Grayson will be expected to help anchor a Bucks bench relatively light on wings (although Rodney Hood is another interesting addition). He may even see a little run with the starting lineup while DiVincenzo remains sidelined with his foot injury as a smaller, quicker replacement for Pat Connaughton (the Bucks didn’t trade two second-rounders for nothing!).
His shooting and defense allow him to be a perfect fit in pretty much any lineup and will hopefully address some of Milwaukee’s shortcomings that reared their heads during the championship run last year. Worst case, Coach Bud can throw him in there to at least trip a couple of guys! With their starting lineup well-established, the Bucks just need to cobble together a few more solid players who can stick in the playoffs as they try and defend their title. Allen gives them a quality option.
3) Monte Morris, Denver Nuggets
The assumed starter at point guard for the Denver Nuggets while Jamal Murray, Denver’s best perimeter player, works his way back from a devastating ACL injury, Morris will need to upgrade his game from caretaker to creator to keep the Nuggets afloat. After addressing tendinitis this offseason, Morris might have a little more pep to his step. The Nuggets will sorely need it, as none of their other point guard options are dynamic off-the-dribble threats.
Murray averaged about nine drives per game last year, while Morris only averaged around five, and just six in games without Murray. He also averaged almost half as many pick and rolls per game as Murray even post-injury. The lack of offseason upgrades at the point guard position indicates the Nuggets think they have the answer in-house. Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. will pick up some of the scoring slack, but Will Barton is pretty much the only player on the Nuggets with any sort of dynamic driving ability. Morris needs to be able to play off Jokic’s gravity and cut a path to the rim.
Morris’s stats with and without Jamal Murray last year were virtually identical, but part of that was due to Morris’s own injury issues. Jokic is the centerpiece of the Nuggets offense, but a little more off-the-bounce juice from Morris could ease the burden on Denver’s MVP big man and allow the Nuggets to slowly integrate Jamal Murray back without rushing.
This team was a juggernaut after the Aaron Gordon trade last year, but Murray’s injury casts a pall over their outlook this season. Monte has long been the king of assist-to-turnover ratio, and his careful tendencies and strong three-point shooting have made him one of the league’s best backup point guards. However, the Nuggets will need more than a game manager this year.
The West is too deep to automatically pencil the Nuggets in for a top-4 seed (many Vegas lines have them sixth, behind the Jazz, Lakers, Suns, Mavericks, and even Warriors). Still, we know the Nuggets will be aiming for home-court advantage in the first round. More aggression from Morris would go a long way towards achieving that goal.